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The Politics of Starving The Hungry













By Bala Menon

The figures are horrifying: More than 230 million children in the world today suffer from malnutrition; some 190 million will grow up stunted and 50 million just waste away or have crippling health problems, including blindness and brain damage. Many will never make it to their sixth birthday. The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that there are 800 million people who do not have adequate access to food. This amounts to one in seven of the world's population.

Global hunger ... widespread, unacceptable

Determined action needs to be taken now. The first-ever summit on food to take place in Rome from November 13 to 17 is expected to approve an ambitious programme for global food security - and more importantly, make the political commitment to push through the plan.

The world has forgotten the terror of the Somalia famine, its conscience assuaged after massive food aid erased the pictures of starving children from television screens. The clan wars that followed raised issues concerning humanitarian intervention. It was also, tragically, the beginning of a policy that questioned the usefulness of aid - to ease suffering and to create conditions for stability. Analysts and research foundations theorise that it is chronic political troubles that create food shortages.

African famines, in particular, are all portrayed as political, not demographic, environmental, or economic phenomena. The tragedy unfolding in Zaire is a case in point. But whatever the cause, it is always the children, the aged and the poor who suffer. The perception has also become widespread among recipient nations themselves that food aid programmes have been wasteful or used as a political tool.

The net result has been a sharp drop in the flow of food assistance worldwide over the past six or seven years - from $15 billion in the 1980s to the current figure of $10 billion, although the need has become much greater. The World Food Programme, the frontline UN agency which oversees food aid, says food deliveries in 1995 were a mere 9.5 million tonnes - 25 per cent less than in 1994 and much below the record level of 16.8 million tonnes achieved in 1993.

The World Food Conference of 1974 had set a 10 million tonne annual target for the aid agency. 'Donor fatigue' is cited as one of the reasons for the shortfall along with the need by countries to apportion funds for peacekeeping, economic and military intervention and other foreign policy options.

Evidence, however, shows that general instability is not necessarily the reason for food shortages. In a politically stable country like India, for instance, the highly-publicised U.S. ship-to-mouth food aid programme of the 1960s shamed a generation of its population. In the next two decades it became a food surplus country - although stocks are reported to be dwindling again because of soil degradation, pest infestations, poor storage and distribution facilities and improper management of water and other resources.

In China, land reforms and the unleashing of market mechanisms led to a surge in food production - but a burgeoning population and increased consumption are expected to create shortages in the next decades. The political upheaval that will result could be cataclysmic. Cuba and Iraq too are generally considered politically stable countries - but listed by the FAO in the 'greatly undernourished' category, rendered thus by the use of food as a potent tool in a bid to change the systems of governance. In these two cases, however, we could classify the conditions as 'politically created famine conditions'.

Agriculture is vulnerable to extremes of weather and too much rainfall, drought, a cyclone, high humidity or too much frost can wreak havoc on crops and the population. All systems of hazard management then could go haywire. It is here that the concept of food as a basic human right enters the picture. Charities and related non-governmental organisations fear that the Rome summit will offer nothing in this regard.

The argument was thrown open in the preparatory meetings of the summit by the Vatican through an 80-page document World Hunger: A Challenge for All, Development in Society which talked of the right to food as a fundamental principle enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. "... Millions of people are still marked by the ravages of hunger and malnutrition or the consequences of food insecurity. Is this due to the lack of food? Not at all... resources of this planet are sufficient to feed everyone living on it," it declared.

Most advanced nations have, however, oppose this enshrining of food as a 'right' on the grounds that it could open the floodgates to litigation calling for special trade preferences or worse, for compulsory across-the-board increases in aid to countries that demand it. The U.S. argues that it could be used as a means to control national food policies. Last week, delegates at preparatory meetings settled the potentially divisive issue by agreeing to drop references to the new 'right.'

Instead, concerned UN agencies will be asked to study if such a right should be enshrined at all in future declarations of the world body. Compromises were also reached on other items of acrimonious nature - like imbalances in trade policies and population control programs. A World Bank publication The World Food Outlook says "...world food production can more than keep pace with population growth... both land and water are abundant according to most estimates... and prospects are very good for the 20-year period from 1990-2010."

Where then does the problem lie? Is it under-production or improper distribution? Faulty or unjust trade practices? Denial that hunger really exists? Or is it market-engineered forces that keep food out of reach of people who need it most? There are no immediate answers and therefore, the fact that the European Community can let its butter mountains grow or U.S. farmers can be paid to let their lands lie fallow so as not to depress grain prices or low purchase rates are forced upon banana and other crop growers in the developing world, will not figure on the agenda in Rome.

However, the summit is a good beginning. As FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf says world stocks of cereals are already way below the security level - for whatever reason - which, in turn, are causing an upswing in prices estimated to cost $4 billion alone per year for low-income, food-deficient countries. The summit leaders will hopefully attempt to reach agreement on how to provide succour to such nations.

The subjects to be tackled are vast: creating and conducting trials of new high-yielding varieties of seeds, preventive action on trans-boundary pests, fighting plant and animal diseases, good management of sustainable resources (irrigation and drainage, the husbanding of forestry and animal wealth), boosting the role of women in rural societies and setting a minimum quality standard for food.

The Arab world

The situation is not very bright in the Arab world either, barring the Gulf region. Director-General of the Khartoum-based Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development Yehya Bakur says there has been a failure to make proper use of arable land or make investments in the agricultural sector of fertile Arab countries.

Sudan, for instance, is often called a potential bread basket for the Arab world but the country itself is dependant on food imports. "The Arab food gap is now estimated at nearly $12 billion annually representing the difference between domestic production and consumption," says Bakur.

The UAE has been fortunate in that it has the financial resources to ensure enough food for its population. Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Saeed Al Raqabani said in remarks made on World Food Day on October 16 that the country's farm production could now satisfy much of the demand for milk and eggs in the domestic market, and a healthy percentage for meat, poultry and fruits. The government's strategy to encourage investment in food production and to combat desertification with the development of better irrigation methods, large-scale afforestation and building of dams is undoubtedly paying off.

Technology seems to be the key. In the U.S. for instance, only three per cent of the population produces food for the entire nation and generates some $34 billion in exports every year. The pattern is similar in other advanced countries. Diouf suggests that integration of several systems and the use of genetics could bridge the food gap and allow the world to easily feed up to 9 billion people by the year 2010 - if planning is begun today.

This calls for intensification or 'industrialization' of agriculture - which will cut waste and inefficiency. USAID figures of food production over the past 20 years show that increases have resulted mainly from increased yields than a rise in cultivated areas. Only ten per cent of the earth's 148.94 million square km is arable and it is this ten per cent that needs to be targeted urgently. In addition, there are the vast oceans to be tapped.

The FAO recommends rightly that the West increase its volume of investment assistance in agricultural infrastructure worldwide - instead of direct food aid to specific recipients. Many countries are today experiencing pangs of liberalisation and the social impact has been devastating - because of the disruption of their agricultural base.

A more compassionate credit programme, substantial reduction in Third World aid, transfer of appropriate technologies and avoiding protectionist policies could bring massive relief to such countries and unleash productive forces. Investment assistance also removes the stigma now attached to food aid and spell a major shift from disaster mitigation to disaster prevention.

The ideals for the Rome summit are lofty: Renewal of commitment to the goal of universal food security and to approve a plan of action - Food for All by 2015. There is not much time and half-measures won't do. In the 17-year time frame, the world will have to be transformed at a rapid pace to ensure that all people at all times will have access to the food they need for an active and healthy life. This is what the Rome Summit is all about.

© 2009, Bala Menon

(This article was first published in Gulf News, the largest-criculated daily in the Middle East)





Hunger: Do You
Know The Facts?

It is estimated that one billion people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition. That's roughly 100 times as many as those who actually die from these causes each year.

About 24,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes. This is down from 35,000 ten years ago, and 41,000 twenty years ago.
Three-fourths of the deaths are
children under the age of five.

Famine and wars cause about 10% of hunger deaths, although these tend to be the ones you hear about most often. The majority of hunger deaths are caused by chronic malnutrition. Families facing extreme poverty
are simply unable to get
enough food to eat.



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